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Published: March 25th 2015
75,000 years ago the explosion must have caused something like a nuclear winter if not a mini ice age. It is believed to be the largest explosion on earth over the last 25 million years and deposited some 6 to 9 m of ash over parts of Asia and Africa. The world and Sumatra would have been very different then. What remains now is the largest crater lake in the world (Danau Toba) filled with a high sided island (Samosir) larger than Singapore.
We climbed up on the windy Trans Sumatran Highway from Medan slowly at first and then with increasing recklessness and speed as the driver calculated we could make the 4pm ferry from Parapat to the island. We dropped down into the caldera winding along the lake edge which sits at 900m. Tourists at the back of our 8 seater minibus were distinctly green when we finally arrived after a seven hour trip from Bukit Lawang. I had had the sphincter seat at the front.
We were quickly bundled on to the ferry for the short 30 minute crossing to Tuktuk. This is the main tourist hub with the island's main town, Tomek,
a few miles South. The temperature was pleasant, tempered by the elevation, and at this time of year some what hazy. There were active volcanoes is the distance, we just could not see them.
The island of Samosir, technically a 'resurgent dome', is dominated by a central ridge that rises steeply from the rice patched shore. It would have made a spectacular hike to the small lake at the summit. We felt it was too much with just two whole days to visit.
The other unique aspect of the region is that the lake is the centre of the Batak people who came down from Mongolia a thousand or so years ago. Three hundred years ago these were one of the head hunting tribes which captured the imagination of Europeans. The Batak unlike the rest of Sumatra, which is Islamic, have their own version of Christianity, brought by Dutch Protestant missionaries, which overlays a history of ancestral worship and animism.
We visited examples of so called 'stone chairs', meeting areas where kings aka village headmen passed judgement and enacted punishment. At one we met an informal guide who spoke English with
Traditional Batak houses at a museum complex
Many are still used. I am talking to the informal guide about ancestors.
his small son around his ankles. I asked him about his ancestors. He said he knew them back 15 generations. He had been told about them by his grandfather and father and he in turn would tell his son. I told him I knew up to ten generations, from documents. I said my family name Drummond was from a Scottish tribe. When I said that my Granfather was born in Scotland, my Father in England and I in the US he just laughed. I think I was pushing the edge of his conceptual world.
The Batak have characteristic houses with roofs that pitch to a point over the front door. Our room was one. The door was all of a metre high and a mezzanine floor at the front stopped me standing up until I was near the bed. It was very characterful and Jane did not have a problem. Steep steps at the back lead down to the wash area and toilet. The location was superb. There was a lawn in front of our balcony studded with plants. At the end of the garden were concrete steps down to the lake. As I swam round two
small off shore islands, I scared off an egret (they are everywhere in Asia) and watched a kingfisher skip from branch to branch.
We were staying at Merlyn Guesthouse. Disappointingly it was run by a German girl and her local partner who were nice enough but seemed to have lost the energy for high quality customer service. Jane had scouted out the options and this offer suited us best at 90,000INR per room. In mid-March, supposedly still in the wet season there was plenty of choice.
Viona, who we had been recommended to by other travellers, had nice modern rooms without the lake frontage right opposite Merlyn. She also ran a shop and rented bikes and motorbikes. On our first two evenings she cooked a dinner, just for us, at a table in her shop. It was nice having family cooking. She opened her shop at 6am while getting her four kids off to school and closed late in the evening. We saw her husband occasionally!
On our first day we rented bicycles from Viona and set off for Ambarita the town to the North of Tuktuk. We didn't want to
do too much since Jane was in the midst of a cold/sinusitis. We found the market and bought fruit for lunch. We then went through the simple and cheap process (20,000INR (£1) for the expensive package) of getting a local SIM. The ride back to Tuktuk along the flat inland road was tremendous. The spring line of the ridge was dotted with villages and churches. An eagle soared over the rice paddies on either side of the road. Occasionally a field was punctured by an ancestral grave or temple.
On our second day we rented a scooter to get further afield. We headed North on the coast road. It is a big island! We stopped at a small museum and also briefly at the only beach on the island's North shore. (Where were the sail boats!) At Suhi-Suhi the bike started to judder and sure enough we had a flat back tyre. We were told to walk one way and after 500m we got to a bike shop to find the owner out on a two hour errand. Before pushing the bike I walked 2km in the other direction to find another bike shop. It was not hard to wave down a single motorcyclist who could give me a lift back to the bike and Jane. Then came the hard bit, pushing the bike to the shop in the midday sun avoiding the 'mad dogs'. It needed a new inner tube, the puncture was a large slit coming from an old patch. It was a two hour delay which was frustrating. You could not complain about the 30,000INR (£1.50) repair cost including new tube.
We headed home, stopped for a brief lunch at one of the many road side restaurants and at the local health centre for medicines for Jane when we got back to Tuktuk.
That evening Moos and Emma arrived from Bukit Lawang and we had dinner together at Jenny's, an LP recommended fish restaurant. There are numerous fish farms scattered around the lake and the restaurant lived up to its reputation.
Our last day was Saturday and we discovered that this was the day local English tutors brought their students to Samosir island to find tourists to talk to. One group came to Merlyn and Moos, Emma and I were happy to entertain them. It is very difficult for them. Just having the courage to talk to strange adults when you are as young as nine in your own language is hard enough. The teachers are clearly doing their best with limited resources.
It would have been easy to stay longer. The volcanic scenery has a strong gravitational pull. Indonesia is a big place (5000km from Aceh to Papua) and we must get on if we are ever going to make to Darwin or Wellington on time. Hopefully we will see Moos and Emma again when we both get to New Zealand and its own volcanoes.
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